It happened back when our son, Graham, was in 2nd grade. He had just gotten home from school. My wife, Barbara, asked him if he had any homework.
“No,” he said, “I did it on the bus.”
“Let’s see it,” Barbara said.
Graham reached in his backpack, found the homework, and gave it to her. He had written sentences based on that week’s spelling words. His handwriting, never very neat, was even sloppier than usual.
Graham watched in astonishment as Barbara tore up his homework.
“You don’t do homework on the bus,” she told him. “You do homework at home. That’s why it’s called ‘homework.’”
Are you appalled by this story? Alfie Kohn no doubt would be.
Kohn, author of such standbys of progressive educational literature as Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve, aims in his latest book to expose the injustice and general worthlessness of homework. He is part of a growing trend. Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish in The Case Against Homework and John Buell in Closing the Book on Homework have also recently denounced homework as if it were a particularly cruel form of child labor held over from the 19th century.
These writers object to homework on both academic and nonacademic grounds. Kohn calls homework “time-consuming, disruptive, stressful, demoralizing.” There is no hard evidence, he writes, to support the widespread assumption that it promotes high achievement and good work habits. Quite the opposite: Homework generates family conflict, takes time away from other activities, and dampens enthusiasm for learning. Or, as a classmate tells a boy weighed down by a backpack in a New Yorker cartoon, “No one’s last words are ‘I wish I did more homework.’”
The vast majority of schools nonetheless persist in assigning it. If anything, students are getting more homework now than ever and getting it earlier—sometimes in kindergarten. Kohn blames the No Child Left Behind Act,which has forced many schools to become little more than test-preparation centers.
Most of what Kohn says about this subject makes sense, though he might have said it less repetitively. Homework is a burden to parents and stressful to children and does interfere with more enjoyable activities. But the problem may not be homework, per se. It may be the kind and quantity students are given—too much, too often, too arbitrary, and too boring.
And Graham? Was he permanently traumatized when his mother tore up his homework and made him redo it? We aren’t 100 percent sure, but we don’t think so. He is now 22 and going for his master’s in chemical engineering at MIT.
Howard Good is coordinator of the journalism program at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His latest book is Inside the Board Room: Reflections of a Former School Board Member (Rowan & Littlefield Education, 2006).
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Book Reviews